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At the BSO: Jennifer Higdon's Percussion Concerto is a smash

Marin Alsop, Colin Currie
Baltimore Sun

By Tim Smith

Just a hunch on my part, but I think that West Coast audiences are going to enjoy the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s visit that starts next week.

A sample of what’s in store for folks in California and Oregon is contained on the program the BSO performs this weekend at Meyerhoff Hall. One item, in particular, is bound to go over well out there, just as it did Thursday night at the Strathmore Center -- Jennifer Higdon’s Percussion Concerto.

Higdon, one of the contemporary composers regularly championed by BSO music director Marin Alsop, writes in a style that is easily accessible to those whose ears are happily stuck in the 19th-century.

But Higdon is also solidly, naturally connected to the sound-world of pop/rock music, so listeners from that side of the aisle can feel thoroughly comfortable with her work.

In this concerto from 2005, Higdon unleashes a kinetic storm of urban beats, balanced by ...

passages of Asian-influenced musings that exploit the most seductive qualities of the diverse percussion instruments assigned to the soloist.

Adding an unusual layer to the work is Higdon’s decision to treat the orchestra’s percussion section as a second protagonist. That means a whole lot of beating going on at times.

The result is that the rest of the orchestra, all those strings and things, sometimes seems like an afterthought. But that doesn’t much matter in the end, for the concerto is filled with absorbing musical ideas that are taken in interesting, often foot-stomping directions.

The piece was written for Colin Currie, a magician with a marimba, a devil with a drum. You can tell how much Higdon enjoyed putting him through his paces; he has to dart across the stage from one set of instruments to another, usually with mere seconds to spare. She also took full advantage of Currie’s expressive abilities, which are as impressive as his technical wizardry.

On Thursday, the soloist’s brilliant performance was complemented by the flair of the BSO’s percussionists. There was some lively work from the orchestra, too, along the way, and Alsop kept all the forces on the same tight track.

The other big item on the program is Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. By now, ears should be accustomed to Alsop’s approach to this composer, vastly different in many ways from that of her predecessor Yuri Temirkanov, yet persuasive on its own terms.

Where Temirkanov found cosmic struggles and dark shadows, not to mention broad tempos, in the Fifth, Alsop takes a lighter, faster view overall. But she hardly slights the fundamental drama in the score. It’s more that she lets you feel early on everything can and will turn out all right.

Thursday's performance had an engaging sweep and abundant character. The waltz movement, for example, was shaped with considerable gracefulness, while the finale surged forward on an increasingly potent electric charge.

The orchestra sounded terrific, with lots of warmth from the strings and vivid color from the woodwinds and brass. In the second movement, there were glowing solos from principal horn Phil Mjnds principal oboe Katherine Needleman.

At the start of the concert, Alsop offered one of her favorite pairings: Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” and Joan Tower’s “Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman.” They both sounded just a little shy of spot-on.